Talkin’ ‘Bout St. Louis City and County at the Arch City Chronicle
Dave Drebes has a smart piece up over at the ACC about the discussion over the city of Saint Louis re-joining the county, which Mayor Francis Slay has already touched on several times. I was quoted in the article, so I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on a few things regarding this very intriguing discussion.
I remember there was an effort around 2005 to open a public pool in the Affton area. I sat in on a few related meetings for my boss, Councilman Kurt Odenwald. Whenever the issue of the price for pool usage came up, there were always some who wanted a lower rate for Affton residents (aka, unincorporated area residents) and a higher charge for residents of nearby municipalities. Their reasoning was that if Shrewsbury was going to charge more to non-Shrewsbury people to use their pool, then Affton should do the same. We always had to explain to people that the county could not do that, because that person who lived in Shrewsbury was paying just as high of a county tax rate (which would have funded the pool) as the residents of the unincorporated areas were paying. They just happened to also be paying municipal property taxes, which residents of the unincorporated areas didn’t pay. A few people had trouble wrapping their heads around that.
Which gets us to the issue of unincorporated/incorporated county spending breakdowns:
Stokes points out that the County expends much more per capita on unincorporated areas of the County than it does on denser municipalities.
Now, the county does not break down its spending in that manner, so I can’t point you to a line item in the budget to prove it. But it is obvious to anyone who works for the county, and it is the same in every other county in the state. There is nothing wrong with this — if someone chooses to live in a municipality (I live in U. City), they are going to pay for the services that city provides. You can’t charge a different county tax to people based on whether or not they live in a municipality. It has to be flat across the board. But the county does have more responsibility for the people who don’t live in a city, so they are going to spend a higher percentage of the budget on those areas. That’s just the way it is. So, if the city rejoined the county, you’d get an enormous increase in assessed valuation without adding significantly to county expenditures. Result: a lower county tax rate for all, although it would not feel like a tax cut for city residents who weren’t paying to the county beforehand. It would be a very real tax cut to current county residents, however.
The other thing I want to add is that while I stand by my belief that, in immediate terms, the real beneficiaries would be county residents, I think the city reentering the county would greatly benefit city residents, too. It just might take a few years for those benefits to become apparent. Right away, as the county took over some of the city’s “county” offices, the city could cut its own tax rate to partly offset the new county taxes. Over time, as the county and city each decided which services to manage, the city’s tax rate could be cut even further. There would not be any wholesale takeover of city services, though. For a few things, like major arterial roads under local control (think Forest Park Parkway), it would benefit the entire area if the county highway department had responsibility for the road for its entire length. The change would also bring many other benefits to city residents, but I will discuss those in the future.
Lastly, I have to run the numbers on the sales tax question. Yes, the city would be giving up some of its sales tax revenues, but its population might be large enough to get almost all of that money back from the pool distribution. You can’t really know the answer until it happens, because any particular decision could affect marginal behavior — i.e., a county resident might spend more in the city if it was in the sales-tax pool, and a city resident might keep more of their money within the city if it was a “point-of-sale” city.